The District of Fort St. James had sexual harassment complainant Kirstin Rudolph sign a confidentiality agreement in relation to her allegations against then Fire Chief Rob Bennett.
This was the condition upon which the District agreed to release any information to Rudolph on the investigator’s report into complaints she and another female volunteer firefighter filed with the District against Bennett for sexual harassment.
The confidentiality agreement is a standard agreement employees of the District are supposed to sign upon beginning employment, including volunteer firefighters, said Kevin Crook, chief administrative officer for the District of Fort St. James.
“It was something that probably should have been done a long time ago,” he said.
While Rudolph could not comment after she signed the agreement on Sept. 3, her husband Phillip Smith did say he was concerned with the fact the District did not meet with the complainants prior to announcing Bennett’s resignation and the report’s recommendations at a meeting with some volunteer firefighters after a practice.
Smith also questioned the inclusion of Bennett’s denial of the allegations in the District’s release, while they chose not to release anything from the investigator’s report.
Smith said the statement makes it look as though the District is acting as an agent for Bennett and not for the complainants.
Kevin Crook, chief administrative officer for the District, said the inclusion of Bennett’s denial of the allegations was meant to make it clear the announcement of his resignation was not meant “to imply whether wrongdoing happened or not.”
Smith said “the complainants don’t consider the matter closed.”
“From my perspective, looking at the whole process to date, some of the things that jump up is them not following their own policies,” said Smith.
Smith said the fact the complainants were not informed separately or specifically about the outcome of the investigation prior to the public meeting at the fire hall contravenes the District’s own harassment policy which says complainants will be informed in writing as soon as possible.
Bennett was told of the outcome of the investigation the week prior, after which he resigned as fire chief.
“Neither Rob nor the District has stepped up and acknowledged something wrong has happened,” said Smith.
While Joy Rierson was not one of the firefighters who filed a formal complaint with the District, she was one of the female firefighters interviewed by the independent investigator regarding an alleged incident she experienced.
She also said she was not informed of the outcome of the report herself, but instead heard “through the grapevine” as she had to work the night of the fire practice when Crook and councillors attended the fire hall.
“To me there doesn’t seem like a whole lot of closure,” she said. “I don’t appreciate it.”
Rierson is not critical of the District’s handling of the affair, but still struggles to deal with the emotional toll of the alleged incident and the investigation into it.
“It just doesn’t go away,” she said. “You still wake up with nightmares.”
“It effected me way more than I thought it was going to.”
Rierson said the training the District is proposing will be positive for the fire department and those involved can begin to move on.
“It is a good thing, it’s just going to take me a little longer than I thought, which sucks,” she said. “It’s like, so you go to work and carry on and I’m the one going ‘Okay, now how do I work through this?’”
The allegations against Bennet have not been proven and the District said they will not be releasing details of the investigator’s report.
The criminal investigation into Bennett’s alleged behaviour still continues and Crown has not yet approved charges in the case.
The District of Fort St. James has posted the position of fire chief and hopes to have a replacement fire chief in place as soon as possible after the application deadline of Sept. 27.